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Day 30: West of Serrita

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Christ the Redeemer looms over the streets of Serrita - 'The Cowboy Capital'.
Michael Palin - BrazilA half-hour drive from the Grand Hotel Inacabado – inacabado means 'unfinished' – is a small town with a steel arch across the road bearing the sign 'Bem Vindo à Serrita. A Capital do Vaqueiro' – 'Welcome to Serrita, the Cowboy Capital'. Which is about as exciting as it gets. There are rows of identical tiny houses, not much bigger than hutches, running in straight lines up the low hillside to one side of the town. At the centre is a crossroads, around which are grouped an Evangelical church run by the Assembly of God, a store and filling station, and a tall stepped plinth at the top of which is a small statue of Padre Cícero, absurdly out of proportion to its pedestal. There's a certain listlessness to the place. A few people sit by the roadside, their faces more Indian than African, eyes following the occasional well-worn pick-up truck as it clatters past. Eventually a car draws up and a tall, good-looking young man gets out and hails us. His name is Tiago Câncio. His father was João Câncio, another legendary padre. Padre João loved the cowboy way of life and was so deeply concerned that it was in danger of dying out that he devised an event called the Missa do Vaqueiro, the Cowboy Mass, which would bring together all the vaqueiros scattered about the region to worship together. He won support from no less a figure than Luiz Gonzaga – the hugely respected man of the sertão who'd become a nationally famous singer and musician. The Mass was so successful that it is now a regular institution. Meanwhile Tiago's father had fallen in love with one of those who was helping him and he left the Church to marry a much younger woman called Helena, who became Tiago's mother and who is sitting next to him in the car. She, like her son, has handsome, regular features. Golden hair spills out from beneath a wide-brimmed hat.

The success of the annual Mass spawned a number of other initiatives including a monthly get-together of cowboys called Pega de Boi, 'Catch my Bull'. It's a celebration of cowboy skills, a chance to win some money and an excuse for a party. This is what Tiago and Helena are taking us to today.

As we drive north and west from Serrita the farms become fewer and the scenery more monotonous. The heart of Brazil is a plateau of very old, hard rock and apart from the odd dramatic sweep of an escarpment, the landscape of the sertão consists of kilometre after kilometre of low undulating hills, covered with a mix of small thorn trees, cactus and scrubby bush. The switchback roads, following the old cattle trails, stretch ahead, long and straight. They're in pretty poor shape, pitted and potholed.

After almost an hour we turn off the road, through gates marked with the name 'Fazenda Angico'. We follow a sandy track past fields of withered maze until we come to a red-tiled, whitewashed farm cottage with a large tree outside and beside it a makeshift tent, with a covering stretched across four tree trunks. This is where the Pega de Boi gathering will take place. Though the high point of the day's activities is the capture of the bulls, this is also a family get-together, and already there are young men drinking in the tent and women in the house preparing food. A few real cowboys are arriving, galloping in on horses, some of which look pretty threadbare and some of the riders much older than I had expected, men with tired eyes and deeply lined faces. The organizer of the cowboy side of things is a whippet-thin seventy-year-old called Julio. His eyes are anything but tired. They dart around with a restless energy, in a face dominated by a fine beak of a nose and a defiantly jutting jaw. Like most of the cowboys his skin is leathered and weathered and drawn tight across his cheekbones. It's also bruised and dotted with scabs of dried blood. I ask if he might have been chasing too many bulls but he explains with much laughter that he was nursing a cow's wound and had forgotten to tie its legs together first.

He is the archetypal vaqueiro. He learnt the skills of the cowboy from his father, who in turn learnt them from his father. I ask if he'd ever wanted to do anything else and he shook his head vigorously.

'Once a cowboy, always a cowboy!'

I wonder about the next generation. In a world of mobile phones and motorbikes, do boys still want to be cowboys? He chuckles.

'Oh yes. Every single child. When they come to age the parents send them to school and they say that they don't want to. They want to be cowboys.'
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 30: West of Serrita
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Serrita
  • Book page no: 126

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